Changing the perception that the Republican Party is the party of older, wealthier, white guys is proving to be tough.
Since the 2012 election, when President Barack Obama crushed Mitt Romney among African-Americans, Hispanics and women, Republicans have been engaged in ambitious efforts to be more diverse and minority-friendly.
But it’s finding its past, or at least the perception of that past, hard to escape. In the last month, three separate controversies have reminded voters of an image party leaders want to bury.
“The party really wants to be diverse, but then one person says something stupid and it gets all the press and hurts the message,” said Steve Munisteri. chairman of the Texas Republican Party.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called progress incremental but significant.
He conceded, though, “We have a message- and candidate-crazy party, to the detriment of mechanics.”
The party’s trying hard to stress those mechanics. When the Republican National Committee met this week at a Southern California resort, its leaders moved fast to douse the latest fire.
On the meeting’s first day, they formally censured Dave Agema, member of the national committee from Michigan, for what Priebus termed “harmful and offensive rhetoric.” Agema had posted critical comments about gays, African-Americans and Muslims on his Facebook page and recently linked to a racist article. He defended himself in a Facebook posting last week, saying he is not a racist and did not support the article’s views.
For the RNC, the Agema controversy was the latest in a rapid-fire series of embarrassments.
A few days earlier, Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, criticized President Barack Obama for not traveling to Paris for the mass rally against terrorism. “Even Adolph (sic) Hitler thought it more important than Obama to get to Paris (for all the wrong reasons). Obama couldn’t do it for the right reasons,” he tweeted.
Weber apologized, saying he had not intended to compare Hitler to Obama. The tweet has been deleted.
Weber’s comments came as the party was reeling from the Steve Scalise blowup. In December. reports surfaced that the congressman from Louisiana, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, spoke in 2002 to a white supremacist group in his state. Scalise said he was not aware the group had those views. Scalise remains part of the House leadership.
The official Republican response to all this turmoil is to watch the mechanics. This bottom-up push began about began about two years ago, when a 100-page post-2012 state of the party report said people in focus groups found the party “narrow minded” and full of “stuffy old men.”
“Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country,” the report said. “When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”
Priebus said in an interview this week that the party’s challenge nowadays is not one of perception but a “community level, individual personal issue where the party hadn’t been reaching out on a consistent basis in diverse communities, and that’s a problem that we’re trying to address.”
The party now has staffers in minority communities, getting to know people while touting the Republican agenda. Too often, Republican officials found, minority voters saw Republicans as politicians who paid attention to them only in the fall of election years, if then.
Republicans are using a three-step process in African-American communities. Party workers first engage the voters, then try to build trust, and finally push them to vote. So far party officials say they’ve reached out to hundreds of thousands of minority voters.
Henry Barbour, the national committeeman from Mississippi and an author of the study, said “the momentum is real,” though he noted “you’re always going to have somebody doing something not helpful.”
Party officials cite some 2014 successes:
–T he new Congress has two African-American Republican representatives and a senator;
– Physician Ralph Alvarado, a Latino, defeated the Democratic minority leader in the Kentucky state senate;
–Incoming Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote (though only 7 percent of the black vote);
–Maryland voters elected a black Republican lieutenant governor.
But the overall numbers remain dismal. Exit polls found nine of 10 blacks voted for Democratic House candidates last year, as did 63 percent of Hispanics. The 2010 vote among blacks was roughly the same, while Democrats won 66 percent of Hispanics that year.
Republican House candidates got 42 percent of the women’s vote, 10 percentage points less than Democrats.
Priebus urged viewing numbers differently. “You’ve got to look at the targeted states. Forget about ‘all vote numbers,’ ’’ he said.
He cited Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich won about one-fourth of the black vote, and Texas, where Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, got nearly half the Hispanic vote. They’re both veteran officeholders who ran against weak opposition.
“We’re getting killed, but we’re doing better,” Priebus said.
Doing even a little better could have a big impact. Doubling African-American support in the presidential election from 2012’s 6 percent could make a big difference. So could marginal improvements over Romney’s 27 percent showing among Hispanics or 44 percent with women.
The perception, though, is hard to overcome. At the RNC meeting, only a handful of the 168 committee members were African-American. One was Ada Fisher, a member of the national committee from Salisbury, North Carolina.
She explained why it’s so difficult to recruit other minorities. “Democrats like to give stuff,” Fisher said. “Republicans don’t. You either believe in our principles or you don’t.”
But, she lamented, “We do have to change some things we do.”